A Topographic Easter Tradition

Staying on my theme of music I listen to on the holy days… I have an Easter morning musical tradition that stretches back a lot further than the 10 years or so I’ve been listening to Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony on Good Friday.

I don’t remember when I started listening to Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans on Easter morning, but it goes well back into my murky pseudo-Christian (proto-Christian?) past, into those pre-Church days when I thought that Christianity was something you believed – maybe even something ontologically transformative – but not something that meant, by necessity, an inescapable belonging to – like an ancestral heritage, but of the Spirit. Well, change we must, as surely time does (to borrow a line from the piece).

The music is a bit of an odd choice to commemorate this highest of Christian holy days, being as it is a musical and poetic reflection on the Shastric Scriptures. Religiously, it falls into the category of cheesy New Age noodling. In rather stark contrast to the flesh and blood realism of a resurrection faith, it meanders through layers of mysticism, mythology, and dualistic struggle.

Tales From Topographic OceansStill, it’s not a wholly inappropriate choice for the occasion. The work’s final movement is, as principal writer Jon Anderson notes in the album’s liner notes, “about the struggle between sources of evil and pure love” (Ritual), and the other major themes of the work revolve around the irrepressibility of revelation, and of the role of tradition – memory and ancestry – in forming the foundations of culture, which is really just a single word for the experienced reality that forms the canvas of the work’s character.

And the Easter message is, after all, about the triumph of love over evil, though Christianity would see the struggle as one of faith lived out in human history, rather than a cosmic struggle between opposing forces – a view naively supposing that God might have an adversary (therein obliterating the meaning of Godhead in monotheistic religion). Indeed, Christianity has much criticism to offer the essentially agnostic character of this and other eastern religious worldviews, but that should not obscure the significance of the reality that many points of contact make such criticism viable.

All the same, the occasion of Easter morning would warrant a Christologically-ordered musical accompaniment – something that says “we are of the Son,” rather than “we are of the sun.” In that light, I set the piece aside for a couple years or so, trying to either replace it with something more orthodox, or just leaving the music off. But I’ve found that, so far at least, neither tact has worked.

Part of the problem is that none of the Christian music in my collection has the gravitas required to be a soundtrack to Easter morning. I have a couple Masses, and you’d think they might be appropriate, but I’m not looking to hear Mass at home on Easter morning – the time for my listening to Easter morning music is typically after I’ve been to Easter morning Mass, the time when breakfast is being prepared, and served, and the family is relaxing or getting ready for the afternoon. I guess I’m looking for gravitas, but not that much gravitas. And the rest of the music? Well, it’s just … songs, for the most part, and I’m not looking for songs; I’m looking for music.

Part of the reason Tales works so well in our house on Easter morning is that, while it does explore certain ideas, the lyrical focus is so abstruse as to be virtually meaningless at most points. Particular turns of phrase certainly carry with them images, which together form a kind of patchwork of meaning once or twice removed, so to speak… but the abstractness is so pronounced that the meaning of the work becomes almost wholly malleable in listening to it. In many ways, the words are really just important for their aesthetic character – Anderson could be singing in Sanskrit and it wouldn’t make much difference.

This was a nice characteristic of early Yes music, which would eventually give way to lyrical content with much more direct intent, which I think has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting some of the underlying silliness of the New Age sensibility that has more or less always informed Yes’ and Anderson’s work. “Equal rights for equal people,” Anderson writes in 1997’s “Children of Light.” You’d think it couldn’t get much gushier than that, until in 2001’s “In the Presence Of” he writes: “If we were flowers we would worship the sun, so why not now?”

However, I think the larger part of the reason the work has, so far, retained its place in my house on Easter morning is that it simply feels like it belongs there. In other words: tradition. I’m not sure I would have played it this morning until Joyce dropped a not very subtle hint that she thought it should be playing. It’s just been that way for a long time, and it ties today’s Easter morning together with our past Easter mornings, which in a way is how they themselves are tied together with that morning in Judea long ago, when Mary Magdalene was startled to encounter the living flesh and blood of a man she had seen die two days earlier.

I think if I were to encounter Topographic Oceans as a new piece of vocal music today, I would not want it played in my house as Easter morning “mood music.” I would consider it largely inoffensive in what it had to say about reality (even if a little loopy at times), but sorely lacking in terms of what it does not understand, and hence misleading as an artistic expression intended to provide musical context for this particular, great Solemnity. But I do not encounter it as if it were new, I bring 35 years of familiarity to my encounter with it – and for many of those years, it held a place of high honor in my hierarchy of artistic value. It still does today, in a sense, though primarily because of what it has meant to me – especially in my youth.

At one time, this work was probably the most “spiritual” creation I’d encountered, and it had significant influence in the beginnings of my journey toward God. Not long afterwards, I began to encounter Christ in the Christian Scriptures, where I found some stark differences between the pathos of the Christian (and Jewish) God, and the sterile idealism of the search for enlightenment. I began to understand that my journey to God is not so much a “journey to” at all, but a turning back to a faithful Creator and Redeemer who had been seeking me from the moment of my conception in his Mind. The “journey to God” is actually what the Muslims call islam, submission.

But I would remain without Church for a long time, and in the absence of a genuine organizing principle in the spiritual life, something else will always take its place – even something like music that seems to connect at a deep level. For some years, listening to Topographic Oceans on Easter morning was the closest I ever got to liturgy. In a way, then, it was both a catalyst to my turning toward God, and a workable substitute for a genuinely Christian expression of faith in community.

All this is not to say that we can’t – and shouldn’t – move on from the affections of our youth, just that there are important spaces in our lives that need to be filled – and will be filled – with something…usually something familiar. Jesus himself expressed much the same idea when he warned about the unclean spirit who comes back to the person it had left, and finding his former home “empty, swept clean, and put in order,” returns to dwell there with seven spirits even more evil that itself (c.f. Mt 12:43-45). Now, I’m in no way trying to depict Yes’ music as unclean with this analogy, the point is just that we need to proactively fill the spaces in our lives with the most perfect good we desire, with the deepest truth w can apprehend, because they will be filled with whatever fits, regardless. Things tend to stick, regardless of their character, and the spiritual life is about nothing if not about repentance…

This opens up many questions – which I’ll have to leave, and hope to pick up at a later time – about the nature of tradition, about how it is personalized, about how it develops, about how cultural forms might play very different roles in a stream of tradition, depending on its developmental nature (e.g. how a particular form might play a constructive role in the tradition at a particular point in history, but take on a destructive role later on based either on an anti-historical formalism or a sentimentality that fails to note its contingent character in pointing to something beyond it – such as a puritanical or biblicist attempt to recreate the apostolic-era church).

At the least, though, this problem of mine should leave me more charitable than I was in my recent lament over the way some very poor liturgical music seems to have found communal staying power by living in familiarity’s comfort zone for many older (and not quite so old) priests. It looks like I’m in a very similar boat, after all. But let me also say that I’m very ready to let my Easter morning tradition develop appropriately toward a more orthodox expression of faith, just as soon as I can find something that can also meet the aesthetic standards demanded by the occasion. Ideas are always welcomed!

He is risen, alleluia!